Author and Audience:Paul wrote the book of Philemon during his first Roman imprisonment. The letter is addressed to Philemon, a member of the Church and owner of the slave Onesimus, one of Paul’s converts (see Philemon 1:1–10).
Historical Background:Philemon was a resident of Colosse and was probably also one of Paul’s converts (see Philemon 1:19–20). He was a zealous member who generously lent his house and means for the use of the Church (see Philemon 1:2–5). Paul made it clear in this letter that he entertained the notion of keeping Onesimus—Philemon’s runaway slave—with him, for he was a valuable friend. Paul could not do so, however, since the young convert-slave was the property of someone else. The punishment for a runaway slave was death. Paul begged Philemon to receive Onesimus as he would receive Paul himself (see Philemon 1:12–19).
Theme:Paul desired his new convert to return home and make amends with his owner. He wrote this letter to plead his cause, hoping that Philemon would accept him back into his good graces. Although returning to his master would result in the loss of his newfound freedom from slavery, Onesimus had found another freedom that only comes through the gospel of Jesus Christ (see Philemon 1:10).